An Historic Look at Political Cartoons

Katz, Harry
December 2004
Nieman Reports;Winter2004, Vol. 58 Issue 4, p44
This article looks back at the history of political cartoons in the U.S. In 1754, Benjamin Franklin created the first American political cartoon, urging the British colonies to Join, or Die in defense against France and her Indian allies. Following ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, political cartoonists in the new republic enjoyed unprecedented freedom to express their views protected by the nation's courts from charges of libel or governmental persecution. Iwo hundred and fifty years later editorial cartoons remain a vital component of political discourse and a cornerstone of American democracy. Yet today editorial cartoonists face unprecedented challenges: Commercial attrition of newspapers and journals has reduced their numbers, advertisers and publishers exert more influence. while the advent of television and the Internet diffuse their influence amid an overwhelming welter of images, text and information. Furthermore, the profession is in transition. Young cartoonists no longer work with crayon and paper in offices near the newsroom, rather they often work at home in isolation, scanning computer-generated drawings for reproduction. The old guard, too, is passing; in recent years we have lost Herbert Block and Bill Mauldin, among others. The future of editorial cartooning in America is uncertain, but the past holds lessons for us all.


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